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Epistolary Exemplarity: Cassandra Fedele to Beatrice of Aragon

Quinn Griffin

Grand Valley State University

In the last quarter of the fifteenth century the humanist scholar Cassandra Fedele (1465-1558) embarked upon a correspondence in Latin with Beatrice of Aragon (1457-1508), daughter of Ferdinand I of Naples and wife of Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary, whom she married in 1476. According to Antonio Bonfini (1434-1503), an Italian humanist and court historian for Beatrice and Matthias, Beatrice wished to establish a “second Italy,” in her new home after her marriage, and she summoned Italian scholars, artists, and even cheese-makers to her court in order to accomplish this. It is therefore likely that Beatrice hoped Fedele would join her in Hungary, adding to her collection of Italian scholars and celebrities; and that Fedele saw Beatrice as a potential patron who could enable her to pursue her scholarship outside the normal limitations set for women of this period. In this paper, I explore how Fedele approached her epistolary relationship with this potential patron, and how issues of gender inform her approach.

Tomasini’s 17th century collection of Fedele’s correspondence includes three letters from Fedele to Beatrice. The second of these letters, dated January of 1488, is the most revealing. In it, Fedele constructs an encomium to Beatrice by situating her within a catalog of six ancient woman (mainly drawn from Boccaccio’s de claris mulieribus):

Nam castitate Lucretiam, Sulpiciam, Sabinas antecellis, gravitate ac venustate Veturiam Romanam, Eloquentia ac copia dicendi Calpurniam, ac Hortensiam superas longeque anteis. (Tomasini, Cassandrae Fidelis Venetae Epistolae, 33-34.)

For you exceed Lucretia, Sulpicia and the Sabines in chastity, the Roman Veturia in authority and charm, Calpurnia in eloquence and speaking ability; even Hortensia you surpass and exceed by far.

Through these six examples, Fedele highlights the combination of virtues expected for women like herself and Beatrice. Poised and eloquent like Hortensia, they must also embody castitas, as Lucretia and the Sabine Women; and even gravitas, normally coded as a masculine virtue, demonstrating the complicated matrix of expectations learned women had to navigate in this period. Furthermore, in examining the six women’s exemplary actions, I find that they are notable almost exclusively for their effect on men; only one, Hortensia, earns praise for speaking on behalf of other women. Finally, the very act of situating Beatrice within a catalog places her on a pedestal above other women— a theme that is also prominent in letters from Fedele’s male correspondents (such as Angelo Poliziano).

Thus, building on the work of Lisa Jardine on humanist women, I conclude that the miniature catalog created by Fedele in order to solidify her relationship to her potential patron is in fact complicit in the process of establishing women like Beatrice and herself as the exception to the rule, contributing to exclusion of women from mainstream humanism even as it seeks to raise Fedele’s individual status.

Session/Panel Title

The World of Neo-Latin: Epistolography

Session/Paper Number


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